Justin Thomas’ climb to No. 2 in the world further boosts Honda Classic’s reputation

Honda Classic champion Justin Thomas almost made it back-to-back victories on the PGA Tour, finishing second to Phil Mickelson Sunday in a playoff for the World Golf Championship event in Mexico.

What does this mean? Well, JT is red hot, for one thing, and he’s earned a break after three top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour in the space of three weeks. Thomas is skipping this week’s Valspar Championship near Tampa, an event that otherwise is loading up on more stars than usual with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth in the field.

Justin Thomas reacts to winning the 2018 Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida on February 25, 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

In the longer view, the upward trend in Thomas’ game seems to have no end.

Two wins already this season, including October’s CJ Cup in South Korea. Seven wins in the last 33 events. Seven top-10 finishes in the last 13. Second behind Dustin Johnson in the Official World Golf Rankings.

This is looking every bit as dominating as the run that first lifted McIlroy to No. 1 in the world. The year was 2012 and Rory followed up a Honda win with three more Tour victories, including the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island.

McIlroy was 22 when he won that Honda and first climbed to No. 1 in the process.

Thomas, 24, is every bit as ambitious. The way he’s going, he’ll be a threat to win at the Masters, where a tie for 22nd is his previous best. Overall, there’s no reason to think that JT won’t eventually match McIlroy’s running total of four major championships.

To have both of these young men based in Jupiter is a gift to the Honda Classic. Now if we can just get world Dustin, another local, to return to PGA National. Haven’t seen him in the Honda since a missed cut in 2015.

Top-ranked golfers and Palm Beach County’s PGA Tour stop really should go together. Since the Honda moved to PGA National in 2007, three players who at one point topped the world rankings have won the tournament. They are McIlroy, Ernie Els and Adam Scott.

Thomas figures to make it four, either this year or soon thereafter, when he makes it to No. 1 as well.

[Kevin Love opens up on The Players’ Tribune, a Derek Jeter project]

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Spain’s Jon Rahm, on fire coming into his first Masters, polished his English by reciting rap lyrics

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods isn’t playing this week and Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, is not really playing well enough right now to be a major threat to repeat. Makes it tougher to predict who will be the sensational international headline at Augusta National this time around, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway.

Take a look at Jon Rahm, the rookie from Spain with the mammoth distance off the tee and the confidence to contend in his first Masters.

Jon Rahm, of Spain, left, and Phil Mickelson walk down the fairway on the 11th hole during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

He’s all of 22 but that shouldn’t disqualify him. Tiger and Jordan Spieth both were 21 when they got their first green jackets. Rahm was the low amateur at his first U.S. Open, just like Tiger was the low amateur at his first Masters.

Besides, Rahm already has a victory on the PGA Tour this year, and he got it in dramatic fashion, making a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole to win the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.

More recently, at the WGC Match Play event in Texas, Rahm reached the championship match against world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The match started badly, with Rahm 5 down very early, but he rallied to push it all the way to the 18th green before losing 1 down.

“Once I got back in the groove,” Rahm said Tuesday at Augusta National, “I learned that when I’m playing good, I can take on the No. 1 player in the world.”

That boldness, the kind once displayed by Rahm’s golfing hero Seve Ballesteros, is bound to make a difference in the Masters, a tournament marked by great risks and great rewards.

“I’m going to tee it up believing that I can win,” said Rahm, who played a practice round Tuesday with Phil Mickelson. “I might do it. I might now but that’s how I do it. That’s what I did at Torrey Pines.”

Still looking for a good reason to believe in Rahm, whose college coach at Arizona State was Lefty’s brother Tim Mickelson? How about this?

Rahm accelerated his mastery of English by absorbing and repeating the lyrics of rap songs by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.

“It was not necessarily to learn new words but to help with pronunciation and enunciation and to able to pronounce certain words and be able to talk faster, without pausing,” Rahm said. “It really helped me out to be able to keep up with some conversations.”

[If you think Dolphins have gone too long between titles, check this list]

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[Jim Furyk, Ryder Cup captain, is general of great project at Benoist Farms Elementary]

The kid’s a fast learner, and he doesn’t mind trying new things, like trying to be the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on his first visit here.

Rahm tees off Thursday at 1:41 p.m. with Rory McIlroy and Hideto Tanihara, a 14-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour and a semifinalist at the recent WGC Match Play event.

If you’re wondering why a rookie rates such a feature pairing, Rahm has risen to No. 12 in the Official World Golf Rankings, just behind Sergio Garcia and ahead of Masters champions Willett, Mickelson and Bubba Watson.



Dinner at Jack and Barbara’s house a bonding moment for U.S. Ryder Cup team


Plenty more to come in my Saturday morning column at mypalmbeachpost.com but here’s a quick taste of the hot topic from the Honda Classic’s second round.

At the invitation of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and some other people you may have heard of, like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, got together for dinner on Thursday night.

Signage for the 2016 Ryder Cup at a press conference to announce Davis Love III as the 2016 Ryder Cup captain at PGA of America Feb 24, 2015, in Palm Beach Gardens. (Bill Ingram / Palm Beach Post)
Signage for the 2016 Ryder Cup at a press conference to announce Davis Love III as the 2016 Ryder Cup captain at PGA of America Feb 24, 2015, in Palm Beach Gardens. (Bill Ingram / Palm Beach Post)

The gathering was at the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach and the idea was to a little Team USA bonding prior to the 2016 Ryder Cup matches in September and October at Hazeltine. Europe has won far too many of these competitions for anybody’s taste, so Love got Jack’s help in starting the adrenalin engine a little early for guys who have played in the Ryder Cup and rising young stars who have not.

There can only be 12 players on the U.S. team, so about half of the players at the dinner won’t make it. Didn’t stop anybody from wanting to be there, however, listening to Jack tell his stories.

Tiger, still rehabbing from multiple procedures on his back, made the drive down from Jupiter Island. He’s a vice captain with hopes that he might be back playing later this year.

Another vice captain, Jim Furyk, came from Jacksonville. Another, Tom Lehman, flew in from Phoenix. Dustin Johnson, who is skipping the Honda Classic, showed up. Jordan Spieth, who is not playing in the Honda, was one of the few notables who did not make the pilgrimage to Jack and Barbara’s house. Rickie Fowler tweeted out a photo of himself eating ice cream with Nicklaus.

“We asked Jack questions and yes, he held court,” Love said. “We asked about preparing for major championships and about being nervous, how he handled pressure, things like that, and just him telling stories.

“His memory is just phenomenal. He remembers every shot, every hole, every situation that he was in, and he’s always honest, whether it’s about how well he played or how poorly he played.”

Many of Team Europe’s leading stars are in the Honda and playing well, as usual. One of them, defending champion Padraig Harrington, was unfailingly honest, too, when asked about the Ryder Cup vibe and the U.S. longing to get a better handle on it.

“We have made the U.S. guys care, and they really care,” Harrington said after shooting a Friday morning 68. “I saw the guys after the last loss. The older guys were seriously devastated. I can’t tell you how much you could see the devastation of losing. It is a huge deal to Phil and Jim Furyk and guys like that. Wow, were they cut up about losing.”

Sounds like another great Ryder Cup showdown coming up, with dinner at Jack and Barbara’s as the appetizer.